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How Theresa May Misreads Angela Merkel – Analysis by Philip Stephens

David Cameron had an unfortunate habit of misreading Angela Merkel when as prime minister he sought better terms for Britain to remain in the European Union. Dismissive of official advice, Mr Cameron insisted he could win over the chancellor to British demands for reform. Mrs Merkel held firm in defence of the Union's acquis. Now, as the UK negotiates its departure, his successor Theresa May seems intent on repeating Mr Cameron's mistake by expecting the chancellor is to bend the rules in Britain's favour.

The first assumption in today's Downing Street is that Mrs Merkel will win a comfortable victory on September 24. So far, so uncontroversial. The second is that the re-elected  chancellor will then take up the role of an ally in breaking the present impasse in Brexit talks in Brussels. Here, like Mr Cameron before her, Mrs May seems certain to be disappointed.

Such miscalculations are not new. Failed efforts to separate Germany from France have been a feature of British diplomacy since its EU accession in 1973. The hidden truth behind the misjudgements is that politicians at Westminster rarely take the time to look through the other end of the telescope - to consider the political aims, constraints and incentives that shape European policy-making in, say, Berlin, Paris or Rome.

Germany, you now hear Mrs May's ministers declare, is an outward-looking, Atlanticist nation with instincts not far removed from those of the UK. Politically, London is a useful balance against Paris. Britain is also one of German industry's biggest markets. For these reasons, the logic continues, Mrs Merkel will want the closest possible relationship between Britain and the EU-27 after Brexit. So if Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief negotiator, requires a nudge from member states to break the present deadlock in the Brexit talks Mrs Merkel will be on hand to provide it.

Of course, it is fair to assume the chancellor wants a close partnership with an important ally like Britain even after Brexit. What's missing in the British analysis is the wider context in Berlin. For Germany, the first priority is to preserve the integrity of the EU 27. Mrs Merkel has things other than Brexit on her mind - a French push to strengthen the eurozone and her own plan to restore the effectiveness of Schengen border controls among them. British politicians have never really understood that European integration is part of the identity of modern Germany, nor that Berlin's relationship with Paris will always come first.

So far talks in Brussels have gone about as badly as they could have done for Mrs May.   Few expect the next round to yield the breakthrough needed for negotiators to recommend expanding discussions from the Brexit bill and citizens' rights to the big question of future trade arrangements. The careful, detailed preparation of Mr Barnier's team has thrown into uncomfortable relief the absence of a clear strategy on the UK side. 

True, the slow progress has punctured some of the absurd hubris of those such as Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who not so long ago claimed Britain could "have its cake and eat it". Thankfully, Mr Johnson is viewed even by his peers as an embarrassment. In a first concession to realism Mrs May now accepts that Brexit will have to be followed by a transition period during which Britain continues to pay a sizeable financial contribution to Brussels and to apply the Union's rules.

Yet, if this represents the beginning of wisdom, there is still a long way to go before the government will admit the full consequences of Brexit - to itself, or to the electorate. Mrs May continues to talk about a "bespoke" arrangement providing special treatment for the UK even though the 27 resolutely reject proposals to bend the rules in London's favour.

Britain's domestic politics do not make things any easier. The general election in June saw Mrs May lose both her parliamentary majority and most of her personal political authority. There is no guarantee her position in Downing Street is secure. And there are still many in her Conservative party - the hard-line Eurosceptics - who argue that Britain should simply walk away from the Union, deal or no deal.

The Labour opposition is pulling in the other direction, pressing the government to commit to remaining in the single market and the customs union during the transition arrangements. Yet Jeremy Corbyn's seemingly more pro-European stance is as much about political tactics as principled policy. Mr Corbyn is a long-time Eurosceptic.

The temptation is to conclude that the negotiations are doomed - that Britain will fall out of the Union in March 2019 without a substantive deal with the EU 27. My sense is that it is too soon to make such a pessimistic prediction. The pressure of time and events may continue to push Mrs May's government in a more pragmatic direction.The prime minister would do well to make a start by shedding her illusions about Mrs Merkel.